[Editor's Note: This article was submitted as a response to Wellness: Why Ergonomists Need to Get Involved (Reprint), by Jill Kelby, PT, CEA.]
We were pleased to see that ergonomists are beginning to pay attention to the NIOSH “Total Worker Health” (TWH) program, but we were also very surprised to read the assertion that ergonomics is being “co-opted” by “others” (i.e., non-ergonomists) within this program.
On the contrary: Ms. Kelby and readers of Ergonomics Today should be pleased to know that knowledge about ergonomics is being contributed to TWH by investigators who are trained in and also teach in the field. The Center for the Promotion of Health in the New England Workforce (CPH-NEW) (http://www.uml.edu/Research/centers/CPH-NEW/) has been one of the TWH Centers for Excellence since 2006. It is a collaborative research-to-practice initiative of the University of Massachusetts Lowell (UML) and the University of Connecticut (UConn). Participants include faculty, research staff, and students in the UML Department of Work Environment, the UConn programs in Occupational & Environmental Medicine and Occupational Health Psychology, and the UConn Ergonomic Technology Center. Ergonomics credentials among our personnel include several BCPE certifications and many years of research on musculoskeletal disorder risk factors, methods for assessing ergonomic exposures in the field and the laboratory, computer-mediated work, work organization and participatory ergonomics. Our emphasis on the potential contributions of occupational ergonomics and macroergonomics to the TWH program is well-grounded in theory and the recent scientific literature.
Those of us within CPH-NEW who are ergonomists believe that the field concerns much more than job-level physical stressors and human factors. Ergonomics, commonly defined as “fitting the work to the worker,” necessarily addresses multilevel determinants of worker/job fit including the psychosocial environment, work organization, and organizational climate. This means that ergonomists address work stress not only by improving human factors (as noted by Ms. Kelby to reduce stress-related accidents), but also through primary prevention: reducing psychosocial and work organization factors that are root causes of job stress.
NIOSH’s goal for TWH is to evaluate whether workplace health promotion (WHP) programs could be more effective if they incorporate attention to workplace health protection, or occupational health and safety (OHS), and vice versa. Our goal is precisely to bring a systems approach to this work, broadening the understanding of WHP far beyond attempts to improve individuals’ health behaviors (exercise, diet, smoking, etc.), stress management and/or coping skills.
In particular, a great deal of scientific evidence now shows that the physical and psychosocial work environment also has a large impact on health behaviors. For example, work scheduling (e.g., night shifts, overtime) is an important risk factor in eating and exercise patterns and obesity. Low decision-making latitude on the job is strongly associated with obesity, alcohol consumption, smoking, and lack of aerobic exercise during leisure time. Clearly, ergonomists have a great deal to offer in seeking to remediate these and similar work organization stressors.
Thus we have made it our responsibility to educate others within TWH about the field of ergonomics. Our arguments about why ergonomics is relevant to WHP have included these key points:
Thus, the references to ergonomics that Ms. Kelby took exception to are actually evidence of our success in influencing and expanding the range of topics under discussion within the TWH program at NIOSH. We agree with her that a good part of what ergonomists do, if they take a broad view of the field, could be thought of as worksite health promotion by another name. She and other readers should be pleased that part of the CPH-NEW effort is precisely to educate others to that fact and to ensure more explicit credit to our field and incorporation of its knowledge basis. Our strategy of submitting articles for publication in a wide variety of journals (see selected list below) also illustrates our attempts to educate professionals in other fields about the content and the value of ergonomics to this work. When presenting regularly at major scientific conferences, such as Work Stress and Health (http://www.apa.org/wsh/), we repeatedly emphasize the important role that ergonomics plays in our research-to-practice interventions.
We would also encourage other ergonomists to join this effort. Worksite health promotion programs are widespread, and in many workplaces there might be opportunities to influence those programs in the ways that we have suggested above. In fact, we respectfully suggest that Ms. Kelby might instead have titled her article, "Wellness: Why MORE Ergonomists Need to Get Involved.” We would also very much welcome hearing from other ergonomists who have experience with participating in WHP programs.
Last, Ms. Kelby also mentioned the National Prevention Strategy, which is obviously a much larger initiative but will likely be informed in part by findings from the CDC’s National Healthy Worksite Program. We are participating in that effort, as well, with similar orientation and objectives as described above. Again, we believe that we are serving our fellow ergonomists well by calling attention to the important contributions of our field to these important new policy directions.
A selected list of relevant publications from CPH-NEW includes the following articles and chapters, produced with NIOSH TWH support, which explicitly incorporate ergonomics methods and content knowledge in seeking to bridge the gap between worksite health promotion and occupational health and safety:
This article was authored and submitted by:
Laura Punnett, Sc.D.,1 Robert Henning, Ph.D., CPE,2 and Nicholas Warren, Sc.D.2
Center for the Promotion of Health in the New England Workforce (CPH-NEW)
1University of Massachusetts Lowell and 2University of Connecticut